Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Songs from 2011

by Conroy

With only days left in 2011, it's time for my annual Top 10 Songs list. As with the previous versions (see my 2010 list here), this list will count down what I consider to be the ten best songs from this year. As a reminder, there are a couple of ground rules for songs to be eligible for the list:
  • If at all possible, I try to include only one song per artist. For instance, I could have included multiple songs from the excellent album The King is Dead by The Decemberists, but adhering to my rule, and because I wasn't completely blown away by numerous album tracks, I've included just one song from the album. However, if we turned back time and I was writing about my Top 10 songs from say 1997, I would have included multiple songs from Radiohead's spectacular album OK Computer (after all, four songs from that album are included in my Top 250 Songs).   
  • All songs must be released in this calendar year (i.e. 2011). For instance, Adele released her massive hit album, 21, this year. The lead single "Rolling in the Deep" was a global hit, and it has made (often topped) critics’ Top 10 lists for 2011, but it was actually released and gained immediate airplay in 2010. Since it was released separate from the rest of the album and gained widespread attention, I must disqualify it from consideration for songs from 2011. Is this unnecessarily hair-splitting? Maybe, but I dislike recognizing songs more than a year after they become hits (or in the case of many great songs that don’t become hits, after their initial release). 
Also, as you read through this list I offer my familiar caution. As with all annual lists, my Top 10 Songs is based on impressions from this year with only a limited amount of time to have heard and internalized each of these songs. Often it takes years or more for the significance of a song, album, or any other artistic creation to become clear. I publish these lists because I think it's fun, generates discussion, and identifies some of the outstanding songs from the past year. However, it could be that I look back years from now with different opinions of what really was best from 2011 (consider my 2010 list to judge my judgment).  

Okay that's enough background, the list:

Conroy's Top 10 Songs of 2011

10. “Change the Sheets” by Kathleen Edwards. It’s been a few years since Kathleen Edwards’ previous release, the outstanding Asking for Flowers, but her follow-up Voyageur will be released early next year. If the whole album matches the quality of the lead single “Change the Sheets,” her fans will be much pleased. I especially like the multi-layered backing vocals that add a depth I haven’t heard from her before. The overall atmospherics of the track mix well with the personality that makes Kathleen Edwards’ music so appealing.

9. “Pill” by Edie Brickell. Edie Brickell has been around for a long time. She first hit it big with “What I Am" way back in 1988. So it was both surprising and exciting to hear her back this year with a self-titled album. “Pill” is a great example of ”happy” music – light, peppy, propulsive – that is about a dark subject, here depression. Some lyrics: “You can’t pay attention / It’ getting pretty rough / You feel a little down now / And you can’t get it up / They got a pill for that…” I like this type of juxtaposition of music and theme, but most of all, “Pill” is the type of song that can be listened to on a loop. I hope we don’t have to wait another eight years for the next Edie Brickell release.

8. “My Body” by Young the Giant. My sister turned me onto Young the Giant, and I’ve heard there debut album described as a mix of Fleet Foxes and Kings of Leon. Maybe, but I always find those types of descriptions unhelpful. What “My Body” features is a fantastic guitar-powered chorus, as good as anything released this year. Rock critics (and to a lesser extent fans) seem to have a longstanding angst that the genre is one day going to run out of steam. That a point will be reached when nothing new or interesting will come along. Given that the Rock n Roll has been popular and artistically inventive for over half a century, I find this point of view silly; no worry needs to be given to the fate of rock. Young the Giant is evidence that rock continues to be home to new, vibrant, and interesting music.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Villages: A New Way to Retire

by Conroy

I looked out through the large bus windows at the rolling central Florida hills. The late morning sunlight was muted by the tinted glass, and the countryside appeared as a contrast of straw-colored grass and subtropical evergreen. It had been a drought-stricken winter, the end of the dry season, and even the dark murky lakes and ponds that dotted the landscape looked drained and shrunken. The bus was heading north from Orlando on the Florida Turnpike. In years past this ground was cultivated with orange groves, but too frequent winter frosts and freezes drove the orange growers south. Now ranching dominates and open, empty fields carry on along the rolling ground as far as the eye can follow . This part of the Sunshine State seems far removed from the palm-laden glitz and built-up densities of Miami and “South Florida,” or certainly the sprawling fantasy production of Disney World and the rest of Orlando’s tourist-entertainment parks. But it’s in this quiet corner of Florida where you will find one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, The Villages. That’s where my charter bus, one of many on the daily round-trip shuttle service to and from Orlando, was taking me.

The Villages is the brainchild of developer H. Gary Morse, who in the mid-1980s saw an opportunity to transform a struggling trailer park into a vast new development. Florida has long been famous as a Mecca for retirees, the “snowbirds” looking to escape the frigid winters of the Northeast and Midwest, and Morse carried this reality to a new conclusion: He wouldn’t build a retirement center, or neighborhood, but an entire town. Large tracks of northeast Sumter County (and smaller portions of adjacent Marion and Lake Counties) were bought, and over the last two plus decades, transformed into a new, wildly successful community. The population of The Villages, including part-time residents, is over 80,000 with a planned ultimate population of more than 100,000. With vast numbers of baby-boomers starting to retire, the U.S. might see a proliferation in these types of master-planned retirement towns, and I wanted to get a firsthand look at this potential future.

Entering The Villages
My bus, which I was glad was well less than half full, exited the Turnpike onto US 301. There followed a slow ten minute ride, which went through the sad-looking town of Wildwood. We passed tiny dilapidated bungalows, tired storefronts, and that general haphazard, disorderly look of neglected landscaping and forgotten maintenance. The impression is unmistakably one of the languishing rural South. What a contrast when a few minutes later and couple miles down the road we turned onto Buena Vista Boulevard and entered The Villages. We passed thousands of trim bright new houses. The white and cream facades accented with a mix of shingled gray, brown, and burnt orange roofs. Many houses feature patios and pools (all enclosed by lanai). We drove past several bright green golf courses; there are nearly 40 in the town all told, including nine 18- or 27-hole country club courses. There was also the exquisitely manicured landscaping: Large oak trees adorned with Spanish moss; palmettos lining golf courses; bushes shielding roadside houses; blooming flowers of pink, red, yellow, violet, and indigo brightening the roadside; and the thick, uniformly trimmed and edged carpet of grass. It was all wonderfully arranged and effectively used to delineate neighborhoods and break-up the views. Intersections occurred at roundabouts, not a traffic signal to be seen. Buena Vista Boulevard, like all major roads in The Villages, is flanked by paved cart paths. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the town is the ubiquitous use of golf carts to get around – everywhere a resident would want to go – and today, Saturday, the carts were out in force.

Lake Sumter Landing
The bus stopped in Lake Sumter Landing, one of two town centers, which features several streets of pastel colored shops and restaurants radiating from a central square. I stepped off the bus into the sunny warm April day and was greeted by my hosts – my parents, part-time residents. The architecture and layout is all set-up following that Florida specialty, the theme, this being the Old South (e.g. a wooden bridge over a small canal, complete with a fake lock and waterwheel). The adjacent square (surrounded by buildings with a southern town façade) was busy as residents and their guests (like me) surveyed the offerings of local vendors; art and personal accessories mostly, and a regular daytime activity. The north side of the square is open and leads to Lake Sumter, right in the center of The Villages. The lake is fronted by houses on either side of the town center. This is apparently some of the choicest and priciest real estate in the whole town.

We walked to a close-by restaurant for lunch and the sidewalks and stores were no less busy. I was somewhat surprised by the composition of the crowds. While there was a surfeit of older people, there were also a lot of families. I had in mind a scene of senescent retirees, slow moving, quiescent. But the hustle I encountered was just like your local outdoor mall, not the exhausted idleness of a retirement home. I was skeptical when my parents told me they were buying a house in The Villages. I feared they were adopting a mentality and lifestyle older than their years. But on first exposure, my fears were somewhat allayed. There was vibrancy here, not certainly for a young person, but at least I could sense the appeal.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Whose Money?

by Conroy

1 World Trade Center under construction
Drivers approaching lower Manhattan in 2011 have seen the steady rise of a new skyscraper, 1 World Trade Center. By December its steel superstructure already stood over 1,100 feet above street level, dominating the famous skyline around it. When the building is “topped out” next year it will be the tallest building in the United States (in fact the tallest in the entire western hemisphere).  1 World Trade Center is the most spectacular part of the massive World Trade Center redevelopment effort, which includes several other towers, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (the memorial is open but the museum is still under construction), and a soon-to-be-completed transportation hub (road/rail/bus terminal). These are just some of the tangible signs that after a decade New York City has largely (physically) recovered from the 9/11 attacks.

Drivers Sue the World Trade Center?
Not long after 1 World Trade Center peeked above the surrounding buildings, the American Automobile Association (AAA), a service and advocacy group for over 50 million drivers, sued the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). Why? Well this fall PANYNJ announced significant toll increases, up to 50%, on its many New York area bridges and tunnels, which include the heavily trafficked Lincoln and Holland tunnels and George Washington Bridge. The higher tolls were needed, according to PANYNJ, to pay for ongoing facility maintenance and planned improvements and to cover some of the cost of the World Trade Center construction. You see, in addition to bridges, tunnel, airports, seaports, and transit, PANYNJ also owns several commercial properties the most visible being the World trade Center site. The AAA lawsuit claimed that the PANYNJ toll increases were an unfair burden to drivers and that toll revenues would be diverted from the bridges and tunnels that toll payers use to unrelated commercial enterprises. In other words, and rather nefariously in AAA’s eyes, 1 World Trade Center was rising high above Manhattan on the dime of drivers who would never benefit from the development.

PANYNJ has countered that in fact they misspoke and all of the revenue raised from increased tolls will be used on their transportation facilities and not a nickel to pay for the World Trade Center construction. Both sides argued their case in court last week and a ruling on the issue might be made by the end of the year. In light of PANYNJ’s modified account of how the toll revenues will be used, I foresee the new toll rates being upheld and no refunds for any AAA drivers, but I’m not a lawyer and won’t wager on any particular outcome.

This whole case may seem like one advocacy group attacking one issue from one public agency, but I think it’s a microcosm of a larger debate being held in many forms nationwide. Namely, when it comes to public money, whether it’s tolls or taxes, whose money is it and who gets to decide how it will be spent? In the 2010 U.S. midterm elections, Republicans across the country benefited greatly from a broad grassroots effort, the Tea Party movement, which essentially argued that elected officials and public agencies were incapable of responsibly using tax dollars. And therefore, all tax increases were unacceptable and major spending programs dubious. On the national level we’ve seen the results of last year’s elections: A tooth-and-nail struggle to get any spending programs passed through Congress, and none of those that eventually were passed included any tax increases. Clearly one’s sympathy or antipathy to the Tea Party movement’s agenda rests in your political and fiscal perspective, but this is one of the fundamental arguments in America today.

Whose Money is It?
So going back to the core question, whose money is it and who has the right to decide how it is spent?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dwindling Ranks

by Conroy

American ground crew like GMGF Jim
Just this past week America marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; seventy years, a lifetime ago. This weekend my girlfriend’s maternal grandfather, Jim (hereafter referred to as GMGF Jim), will celebrate his 92nd birthday. These two occasions, the first a date of great historical significance, are separated by only a handful of days, and connected by the passing years.

The attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Americans responded by throwing themselves into the war effort, including millions of servicemen destined for all parts of the globe, in what would be the most impressive display of military force in history [1]. One of those men was a young GMGF Jim, in his early 20s, who enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the new United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the predecessor of the modern USAF. When I met GMGF Jim in the middle of last year I was curious to hear more about his service, having learned only snippets from my girlfriend. Unfortunately, his advancing age has robbed him of most of his hearing, which means that conversations with him proceed in bursts of short shouted questions, often repeated, and followed by equally short shouted replies. All of this leads to a rather halting dialogue frequently waylaid by misunderstandings, incomplete details, and the basic ineffectiveness that disjointed rhythm has on communication. I would relate it to a phone call where there’s a long delay and you constantly have false starts, long pauses, and overlapping talking. It just doesn’t work well.

Two Experiences
I tell you this as a preface to what I’ve gathered of GMGF Jim’s war service; I think I have the broad elements correct, but the details may be iffy. He set sail from wherever basic training was, maybe his home of Baltimore, destined for Panama City, Florida. But due to some sort of mix-up, the ship instead went 1,500 miles too far south, to Panama…the country…in Central America. I know what you’re thinking: That can’t be right? Which was pretty much my reaction, but I pressed the point with GMGF Jim a couple of times and received that same answer (all I could do was shake my head and say “okay”). So, once in Panama, the local American military commanders had to do something with a ship full of recruits. Fortunately, there was a rather important strategic asset in the area, the Panama Canal. The Canal needed guarding and part of that duty fell to the USAAF. After a short stay on land, GMGF Jim and his fellow shipmates were sent through the Canal and sailed southwest to the Galapagos Islands [2]. There the USAAF established abase at Baltra Island. Planes from this base patrolled for enemy submarines and protected Allied (and neutral) shipping on the western approaches to the Canal. GMGF Jim spent the rest of the war as a member of the ground crew servicing planes.

Given the general danger of being in the military during World War II, I consider getting stationed in Darwin’s quiet balmy islands to have been a pretty plum assignment. Not bad considering it was a mistake. But it was work and it was far from home. Most of war is extended boredom and I’m sure GMGF Jim had moments of the tropical doldrums. Still, it’s an interesting story, and raises a few questions: He really ended up in Panama instead of Florida? The vast American military-logistic system was capable of misplacing an entire ship? There were on-site ad hoc solutions that ended up lasting the entire war? Whatever happened in Panama City when his ship didn’t arrive? What about the men originally slotted for Baltra Island, where they there as well? It all strikes me as a semi-comical combination of Catch-22 and Guard of Honor [3]. It’s also something I was never likely to learn without hearing it from the mouth of the man who lived it.

My maternal grandfather, Jack, also served in World War II as an artilleryman in Europe. He died fifteen years ago at the age of 79. In the last six years of his life his mind was decimated by Alzheimer’s, but even late in his life, long after most of his recent memories were lost, he was still able to tell me of his time in Europe. His service was more typical of what we think of as the American experience, war in Europe, fighting Germans through France, etc., though I gathered from him that he didn’t have any close calls on the battlefield.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Shopping Season

by Conroy

Tis the -- shopping -- season
We’re in early December and for Americans that means we’re smack in the middle of the holiday season. It also means we’re in the full register-ka-ching-ing focus of the shopping season. Indeed if you were to list the most obvious manifestations of approaching Christmas [1] you would probably include the tiny many-colored glowing lights adorning neighborhood houses, or the Christmas trees and other seasonally related decorations inside the homes of you, your family, and friends [2], but also the inescapable, omnipresent, overwhelming seasonal advertising.

From the radio spots you suffer through when driving to work in the morning, the bright, glossy ads in newspapers and magazines, the loud television commercials, annoying internet popups, and in-your-face billboards…it’s everywhere. It’s Christmastime, and it’s time to shop. Best Buy, Walmart, and Target have, as usual, put out their heavy dosage of ads, but all major retailers are in on the game. I’m especially confounded by those ridiculous "December to Remember" Lexus commercials aimed at whatever infinitesimal fraction of the population chooses to buy luxury cars for Christmas [3]. And I guess it’s working, given the record sales on the super-hyped Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping days. And surely many people, like my mom and aunts, really enjoy shopping; zeroing in on sales, mingling with the crowds, and wrapping gifts [4]. Why else would hordes of people stay up through the night of Thanksgiving jostling with other midnight shoppers? It can’t be just for the money-saving sales.

This year I’ve been struck by the tone of the advertisements, almost as if it’s your duty to shop, something along the lines of voting or obeying traffic laws. If you don’t participate, then it’s somehow antisocial and un-American. If you’re like me, you probably find this commercialization of Christmas unsettling in a somewhat-hard-to-define way. I’m not religious, but I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, and so, of course, it’s still worth noting that Christmas is a religious holiday, deeply special to Christians because it marks the birth of Jesus. In its evolved modern context, the holiday has wider significance than its religious foundations. It’s a time of celebration of the year completed, a time to spend with family a friends, and yes, even a time of giving. It’s this aspect of Christmas, the time spent with family and friends, that makes the Christmas season meaningful to me, and I’m guessing (or hoping), it is the largest reason Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” for most of you as well.

A part of what unsettles me about the commercial side of Christmas is the often cited fact that the holiday retail season is an essential feature of the consumer-driven American economy. You’ve probably heard the misleading statistic that two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product is derived from consumption – people buying things, but regardless of the real value, shopping is a major part of the modern economy. And about 20% of all retail sales come during the Christmas shopping season (November to December). This explains why businesses are so forceful with Christmas ads – they must make their money before the end of the year, or risk red-ink and failure. (I may be off base, but it seems a little alarming that a major prop of the world’s largest economy is the buying of Christmas gifts.) That’s also why we’re subjected annually to the phenomenon that Gregg Easterbrook has termed “Christmas Creep”: Seasonal advertisements appearing ever earlier in the year. Now it’s common to come across Christmas-themed store displays and print advertisements before Halloween, sometimes well before. How long before Christmas advertisements start in the summer? It sucks a lot of the specialness out of the season when Christmas is exploited throughout the non-Christmas-time of the year.

Gifts under the Christmas tree
But that’s an external issue. What really bothers me the most is the expectations that come along with gift-giving. I’m an embodiment of the cliché that it is better to give than receive. When I was a child I loved to get gifts, and I was fortunate that my parents and other relatives lavished me and my brother and sister with a lot of them. But now with maturity, I much prefer giving gifts to my family (girlfriend included), especially when I know they can use or want what I’ve gotten for them. It’s a rewarding feeling and genuinely selfless, I give for the enjoyment of others and not for my own satisfaction of giving (although I guess I can’t deny the presence of some selfish gratification I get from being perceived as generous and thoughtful). But unfortunately, too often gift giving is not a bonus of Christmas but a requirement, a burden.